And what is a “revolution”? To my mind, a revolution is a 180-degree change in the power structure and in socioeconomic arrangements. Does the so-called American Revolution qualify as that?
I was well along in years before I realized that what I had been taught was a revolution was really a militant demand for tax cuts--a demand resulting in colonies seceding from their mother country. And it wasn’t until I read Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic, A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row), that I realized that the “American Revolution” was not a revolution at all. For most people then living in the 13 colonies--women, Native Americans, working-class whites, slaves–it was barely a reform.
Le Moyne College history professor Douglas R. Egerton has focused his academic career on slavery. His sixth book, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press, New York City; 342 pages/hardcover; $29.95), came out in January. It explores how the revolutionary rhetoric of our nation’s founders affected enslaved African Americans. For the founders, “All men are created equal,” that pithy and stirring truth, was a slogan they didn’t want their human chattel to hear. Many of our founders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson foremost among them, were slaveholders. Many had no intention of giving up that source of their wealth.
Death or Liberty is well-researched and well-documented. Perhaps its most telling document is the painting on its cover, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781, by the 18th-century, Boston artist John Singleton Copley. It depicts the British officer dying in pitched battle. In contrast to the blond, supine, expiring major, and equally central to the painting, is an elegantly arrayed African-American rifleman fiercely fighting alongside the Redcoats.
Truth is, until reading Egerton, I hadn’t given much thought to the role of black bondsmen in the American Revolution. Nor had I imagined them fighting against their “revolutionary” masters on behalf of the invading Brits. But fight they did. And in the thousands they and their families fled to British lines seeking freedom.
Egerton’s book opened my eyes to how resistant African Americans were to their enslavement. Not waiting for some emancipator, in the 1780s and 1790s and thereafter, many sought to escape bondage. In the chaos of war some fled into the anonymity of urban slums (mixing with free blacks) or escaped to work on seafaring ships. Others, risking torture if caught, tramped north to Canada, south to Spanish Florida or west beyond the frontier.
But many bondsmen sided with one or the other of the clashing armies and navies–whichever side seemed to promise the best chance of freedom. For many, that promise went mostly unfulfilled. Either the “revolutionaries” at war’s end failed to free their black allies or the Brits dumped their black allies in chilly, hostile Nova Scotia or along the British-ruled west coast of Africa.
Egerton’s narratives of particular slaves and their fates raise the question of the human spirit. Clearly, black bondsmen and -women endured enormous pain and privation. How much hypocrisy, humiliation, servitude and torture will a human tolerate before taking drastic steps?
Death or Liberty shows the emptiness of “revolutionary” rhetoric in the face of slavery’s contradictions and coercions. It also shows how the bloody and protracted slave revolt against French planters in Haiti, culminating in black victory in 1804, helped incite black resistance and militancy here in the newly constituted United States.
While it may have been outside Edgerton’s scope, I wish he had at least briefly explored the link between the rhetoric of the American Revolution and that of the 1789 French Revolution (“liberté, egalité, fraternité”). In neither case was the rhetoric meant to apply to black chattel. But in both cases those Africans–the true revolutionaries–took those inspiring words to heart. I’m not clear, though, after reading this useful book, to what extent those revolutionaries needed the prod of white ideals. . . or whether those self-emancipators simply heeded their own innate sense of human dignity.
On Thursday, March 19, at 6 p.m. at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St., Egerton will lead a discussion on chapter nine of Death or Liberty, “A Suspicion Only, Racism in the Early Republic.” You can download the chapter free at www.beyondboundariescny.org. This event is free. To learn more, call Aggie Lane at 478-4571.
Ed Kinane is active with the Syracuse Peace Council.